Disadvantage, inequality and social mobility: It’s not just about schools

‘Our society is stuck in a rut on social mobility,’ writes Institute of Education Director Becky Francis in a blog post published this week. Despite the efforts of successive governments, she writes, ‘the gap between young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and their peers … in education, income, housing, health … continues to yawn’.

Professor Francis cites a wealth of recent evidence to prove her point, including a report from the Education Policy Institute which shows that the most disadvantaged pupils in England are on average more than two full years of learning behind their better-off counterparts by the time they leave secondary school; and statistics from the Department for Education which indicate no improvement in the gap in university entry between those who received free school meals and those who did not in the seven years between 2008-09 and 2014-15. An estimated 24 per cent of pupils who were in receipt of free school meals at 15 had entered higher education by age 19 by 2015-15, compared to 41 per cent of the rest.

This makes for depressing reading, but it is not particularly surprising. While social mobility has been near the top of the political agenda in the UK for some time, efforts to tackle it have been half-hearted, at best, often loading pressure on the education system to turn around problems which are much wider and much more fundamental. This isn’t to say that the problems are insoluble or difficult to comprehend – just that solving them will take a much bigger effort and a much profounder change to the organization of our society than politicians like to pretend. In many cases, I am sorry to say, politicians have offered ‘solutions’, talked about ‘magic bullets’, in the full knowledge that they are nothing the sort. In fact, as they probably well know, the assumptions they accept about the limits of what it is possible to do make meaningful change to social mobility at best highly unlikely, at worst quite impossible. Despite years of overheated rhetoric, rather than narrowing, disparities in income, education and health look set to rise as we enter a further period of needless and self-inflicted austerity.

Professor Francis makes an eloquent case that, from a schools perspective, the key policy change should be ‘to find ways to support and incentivise the quality of teaching in socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods’. This is important. I have direct experience of the difference a really talented, committed teacher can make to students’ lives and aspirations, albeit in a further education context, and I have seen the difference poor teachers can make, from school to higher education. It is clear that successfully incentivizing the best teachers to work in the most deprived schools, by whatever means, will make an important difference to outcomes. And it is evident, as Professor Francis also argues, that early-years interventions are often the most effective and best sustained.

But it is clear too that these, as isolated interventions, will have limited impact. Making a deep and lasting impact requires that we turn around the social and political trends that arrest and make more difficult social progress of this sort. The most obvious of these is the entrenched inequality that has come to characterise our society in past decades. There is a clear correlation between inequality and social mobility: the more unequal a society is the less socially mobile it is. And the UK is among the most unequal societies in the industrialised world. Part of the problem is that the rungs of the ladder have become too distant from one another and the cost of failing and falling down a rung becomes greater and greater. This partly explains why education has become such a high-pressure, high-stakes game, one which middle-class families have become adept at playing, further squeezing the life chances of the children of the less well off. It also helps explain why working-class students are happy to take on heavy debts to access higher education: in the high-stakes, anxiety-ridden education system we have created, the enormous costs of failing make the payment of exorbitant fees – the highest anywhere in the world – appear reasonable. The combination of such profound inequality with a gameable system and the pervasive myth of meritocracy – cultivated by politicians including Prime Minister Theresa May – is incredibly toxic.

Its impact can be readily recognised in the failure of elite universities to widen access to their institutions. A report from the Reform think tank, published this week, showed that England’s leading universities had made ‘incredibly slow’ progress in widening access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, despite spending hundreds of millions of pounds on interventions which, I suspect, have ,in some cases, had more to do with satisfying the Office for Fair Access than making a genuine difference to their student profile. While, overall, English universities have increased access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the progress, predictably enough, has been skewed towards ‘lower- and middle-tier universities’, while the elite institutions live down to their reputation (hugely alienating from the perspective of prospective working-class students) as finishing schools for the already-privileged. The most dramatic gap obtains between private school students and those from state schools. In 2014-15, 65 per cent of independent school students entered a highly selective HEI by age 19, compared to 23 per cent of state school students, a gap of 42 percentage points (the gap was 39 percentage points in 2008-09). The tremendous loss of talent this represents is evidently thought a price worth paying for preserving the privileges of the fortunate few.

The fees regime, introduced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in 2010, frequently vaunted as being an agent of fairer access (a myth that can only be maintained by ignoring huge swathes of evidence in favour of the bits you like), has, in fact, been a pretty much unmitigated and indefensible disaster in terms of widening access, not only creating what is effectively a two-tier university system but resulting in a 56 per cent collapse in part-time (mostly mature) student numbers and obliging the Open University, once a genuine agent of progressive social change, to massively inflate its fees, shutting yet further doors in the faces of working-class students. Its overall impact has been to make higher education more expensive for poorer students than for their richer counterparts while making the prospects of an ‘elite’ higher education seem yet more remote for working-class students who, despite the resistance of these institutions to admitting them, generally outperform more privileged counterparts with comparable grades.

It isn’t just mature and part-time higher study that has fallen into steep decline since 2010. Successive governments have made swingeing cuts to further education, and to adult skills, in particular, leading some experts to predict the imminent death of publicly funding adult FE. Only the activism of unions and representative groups, alongside the belated recognition that maybe training our homegrown talent wouldn’t be a bad idea in a post-Brexit, post-free movement Britain, have prevented adult education in FE from disappearing altogether. At the same time, as John Holford noted in a recent article, the narrowing of further education’s mission to a Gradgrind-like economic utilitarianism has made it increasingly difficult for colleges to fulfil their wider remit in their communities. The message to working-class students and prospective students from working-class backgrounds, wherever they study, could not be clearer: stick to what you know and keep your aspirations low. Aspire to a job and leave the joys of a broader, liberal education to those who can afford it. Hardly the stuff of an aspirational, learning society.

This constriction in opportunities for young people and adults has a major impact on the aspirations and achievements of children. As I have argued before, the role of the family is absolutely critical in breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Family learning has a frequently neglected but hugely important role to play in motivating children and adults to learn, creating learning environments within the home and setting an example that can prove infectious. The restoration of funding for adult education should be part of a wider national effort to promote social mobility and combat inequality. This should also include a general increase in levels of investment in education, including in early years and high-level vocational and technical education (which has never been accorded due respect by UK policy-makers), bringing the UK to the level of comparable nations such as France and Germany, and the scrapping of the costly and dysfunctional fees system in higher education. Crucially, theses interventions should be part of a wider national conversation about how we reduce inequality, improve productivity and boost wages while redistributing wealth more fairly. We also need honest politicians who tell us the truth about the challenges we face and don’t spin us yarns about meritocracy and how education alone can overturn entrenched inequality. I don’t think any of this is rocket science. It just suits some of those who like things the way they are to pretend that it is.

2 thoughts on “Disadvantage, inequality and social mobility: It’s not just about schools

  1. Paul, what a delight to meet a fellow lifelong learner. Regarding your blog on disadvantage, might I ask a few questions. I serve on numerous community library, shelters, and other non-profit organizations that seek to change the world for disadvantaged youth and adults. I respect your stance that education alone is not a silver bullet; it will take a much more holistic and congruent approach. My main thought on this is the difference between education and learning. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

    When you talk about an elite institution versus a lower or middle tier one, do you think that truly is part of the equation? I’ve attended seven higher level educational institutions from the tippy top to the very bottom. In each one, I’ve gotten as much out of it as I put into it. In the US, where you went to school previously mattered. Now, it is more a function of earning a degree (in many cases any degree) to show you have the discipline to complete a program which entails critical thinking skills and hones your writing and reading skills. I’m sure you’ll agree that learning is not a one size fits all proposition and when I would be in a classroom with people too far above or below my cognitive level, I became disengaged. I give scholarships to several of the lower/middle tiers colleges, and those students are as hungry and thankful as any I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen them go on to be as successful at changing the world as any ivy-leaguer.

    Your insights into the role of the family in breaking intergenerational poverty are on point. Family learning has a tremendous impact on helping young people become aware of the importance of education and to help them cultivate a desire for a greater version of themselves. I know you advocated in your blog for more government investment in education. In the US, we have free programs and libraries every day and night of the week. Government money funds some, but most are from private donations. The family adults have to have the desire and motivation to engage in this type of offering. Case in point, this summer I did a free six-week program in our inner cities on financial literacy. We had funding from several local credit unions, interactive challenges, financial literacy goals, and even snacks!! I sent out 1,000 invites to the local communities and followed up with personal phone calls. We had two children show up. Now, I am so thankful for the two that came because we had a fantastic time! But unless the parent has the will to bring their child to these types of events, no amount of government funding is going to change that.

    What at your thoughts on how we engage more parents in the already amazing programs that are happening? How do we put salt in the oats so people thirst for knowledge?

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful and interesting reply, Tracey. I agree that at whatever level you study you can get a great deal out of it and I don’t mean to disparage any level. I just feel that your background shouldn’t be a barrier, nor should lack of financial means or family connections. Sadly, these things do continue to matter, perhaps particularly in the UK, where class is still, very often, a determining factor in terms of life chances and aspirations. Many people from less disavantaged backgrounds just don’t feel ‘elite’ higher eductation is for them and the institutions themselves do not do nearly enough to attract them or open up access furtherm, for example by making use of contextualised data in admisisons. There are a great many routes, and people will not find all of them to their taste of capability, but it is important that they can access them if they choose too and have the right set of abilities. But, you are right, of course, that you must be willing to engage, as a student. The best teacher in the world won’t reach you if you don’t. And I guess my own experience of inspirational teaching wouldn’t have been quite so inspirational if I hadn’t been prepared to commit to the same degree as my teacher. Engagement is tricky, as you say. I don’t have any straightforward answeres but, in my own experience, the desire to help your kids through school is a big motivator to get parents involved. I think it’s important too that reluctant learners, who may have had a bad first experience of education, have places which are non-threatening and local they can go to. In the UK, those places have been disappearing but new ones have opened up, with people often making their own opportunities to learn, setting up their own art or language groups, for example. My mum is a good example of someone who has set up her own painting group but it has been hugely difficult for them to find spaces in which to work. I don’t know if it’s the same in the US, but there seem to be fewer and fewer spaces in which people can get together and engage in learning activities. Many libraries have closed and other centres, formerly for community use, have been sold for other purposes. I agree, though, that govermnment funding is only part of the answer, though it is an important part. Government also has a role too in creating structures within which other forms of funding can be drawn down. It also sends out an uimportant message about value, I think. That said, much of the best adult education interventions have been the result of individuals’commitment, often in spite of government indifference. This is certainly true in the UK, where lots of enterprising provision has been the result of clever educators getting around the funding rules. This is still the case, though the proportion of adults participating in learning has been declining and the hard-to-reach remain stubbornly hard to reach. I think we need to get better at understanding what works, learning from one another and maintaining collective memory. A particular challenge here where so much infrastructure has been lost.

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